Cameron: The Scarlet Woman who bewitched Los Angeles

Cameron in 'The Wormwood Star' by Curtis Harrington, 1956.
Cameron in ‘The Wormwood Star’ by Curtis Harrington, 1956.
Semina cover with photograph of Cameron, 1955, Wallace Berman. Semina journal, no. 1 (1955) by Wallace Berman. Gelatin silver print mounted on cardstock.
Semina cover with photograph of Cameron, 1955, Wallace Berman. Semina journal, no. 1 (1955) by Wallace Berman. Gelatin silver print mounted on cardstock.

My very first approach to the art of Cameron was through the 1956 ten minutes-long film ‘The Wormwood Star’ by Curtis Harrington. Despite the few minutes of highly-stylised live action filming, the whole short is intensely based on Cameron’s esoteric illustrations, slowly filmed to the abstract, ravenous soundtrack by Philip Harland and Leona Wood. If you please, you can watch the whole film here.

I decided to start this article with a description of this film because of it being solidly engrained around the artist’s persona; The short is in fact both a tribute to her rapacious style of illustration as well as also creating visual grounds for Cameron to play with her fashion persona too; It comes not as a surprise that, after witnessing her acting efforts, fashion tried to inglobate this artist’s dark, ravaging aesthetic:

If Kenneth Anger envisioned her as the Scarlet Woman in his lavish ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’ (1954), Harrington later casted her again as an enigmatic witch in 1961’s ‘Night Tide’ (a film you can watch in its entirety here) , a role that would see her as a sinister water-witch, just walking in a black dress and wrapped in a floating gauze-looking organza of the same colour.

A role that Cameron later lived out and about in Hollywood in her real, day-to-day life; With her ferocious red hair, black dresses, black nail polish. And yes, driving around town in nothing less than her own hearse.

Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron Parsons Kimmel was born in the small, remote village of Belle Plaine in Iowa in 1922 and grew up there until 1940, when Cameron and her family moved to Davenport so that her father could work at a munitions factory. She then completed her final year of high school education at Davenport High School and later worked as a display artist in a local department store.

In February 1943 she signed up as a volunteer for the U.S Navy, where she served as a cartographer and then subsequently reassigned to the Naval Photographic Unit, where she dealt with the wardrobe for propaganda documentaries, in the course of which she met various Hollywood stars.

She received a discharge from the military in 1945, and travelled back to Pasadena, California; It is there that she met Jack Parsons, a rocket scientist who was also a devout follower of the new religious movement founded by English occultist Aleister Crowley in 1904, Thelema. When the two met, Parsons had just finished a series of rituals utilizing Enochian magic with the intent of evoking an “Elemental” woman to be his lover. Upon encountering Cameron, with her striking red hair and blue eyes, he considered her to be the creature that he had invoked. The two almost immediately started frequenting each other, reportedly ‘rarely leaving the bedroom’.

Unbeknownst to Cameron, Parsons saw the early stages of their relationship as a form of sex-magick that constituted part of the Babalon Working, a rite to summon the birth of Thelemite goddess Babalon onto Earth in human form. Unaware of the scientist’s machinations, she momentarily travelled to New York City where she learnt about her unexpected pregnancy decided to terminate it through an abortion, without Parson’s knowing.

On the 19th of October 1946 he and Cameron married in Orange County, in a service witnessed by his best friend Edward Forman. Having an aversion to all religions, Cameron initially took to interest in Parsons’ occult practices, and he encouraged the notion that she had an important, spiritual vocation.

Parsons later started working for the Bermite Powder Company, where he began constructing explosives for the movie industry. After moving in together, the couple started to hold parties that were largely attended by bohemians and most especially by members of the beat generation. She grew particularly close with Beat artists Wallace Berman and George Herms, with the former using one of his photograph of Cameron for the cover of his notable beat journal ‘Semina’ in 1955, featuring a large amount of her artworks.

Earning some of her own money, Cameron produced some illustrations for fashion magazines, also selling some of her paintings. On June 17th, 1952, her husband received a rush order of explosives for a film set, for which he began to work on at his house immediately. In the midst of this project, a sudden explosion destroyed the building, leaving Parsons fatally wounded, and upon being rushed to the hospital by emergency services, he was declared dead. Cameron did not want to see the body, instead retreating to San Miguel in Mexico, asking one of her friends to oversee the cremation for her.

In the time she spent recovering from her trauma in Mexico, Cameron began performing blood rituals in which she would cut her own wrist, in the hope of communicating with Parsons’ spirit. Increasingly interested in occultism, she read through her husband’s papers, finally discovering about his Babalon Working and moreover trusting that the spirit of the Thelemite deity Babalon had been incarnated into her. A belief that went from strength to strength, as she delved deeper into mysticism. As one of Los Angeles most established countercultural icon, it only comes natural for fashion to constantly go back to her as the woman who, most of all, embodied the more sinister, esoteric aspects of modern Hollywood. Mentioned recently in fashion show’s reviews for Saint Laurent and MBMJ, her influence is as strong as ever, shrouded in mystery yet palpable and dangerously familiar.

The Scarlet Woman is still conjuring images of the threatening, seducing witch even almost twenty years since her death in 1995.Her powerful image remains as intoxicating as ever, as if by magic.

A major retrospective, ‘MOCA presents Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman’ ran from October 11, 2014 to January 11, 2015 at MOCA Pacific Design Center. Organized by guest curator Yael Lipschutz, the exhibition has been the largest survey of Cameron’s work since 1989 and included approximately 91 artworks and ephemeral artifacts. Alma Ruiz, Senior Curator at MOCA is the coordinating curator.

Thanks to Scott Hobbs and the Cameron Parsons Foundation

by Matteo Sarti